Campus & Community

Stevens Solar Decathlon Project Unites Disciplines on Innovation for the Greater Good

At an eye-catching construction site on the Hudson River, next to the Stevens campus and overlooking the Manhattan skyline, a sleek, black, L-shaped structure is slowly taking shape.

Ecohabit, an intelligent, energy-efficient and sustainable home, is the university’s largest collaborative effort, uniting 60 interdisciplinary students to build a smart house for the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2013 Solar Decathlon competition, which will culminate in October 2013 at the XPO, a world’s fair of clean, renewable and efficient energy in Irvine, Cali.

The students, both undergraduates and graduates, combine expertise in a wide variety of fields – mechanical, electrical, chemical and civil engineering; architecture, design and visual arts; business and technology and engineering management; and computer science – in hopes of repeating the success of the 2011 Stevens team, Empowerhouse, which won awards in two Solar Decathlon categories in that year’s Washington, D.C. competition.

Interdisciplinary education and research has been a distinctive component of a Stevens education since its founding in 1870. The unique experience gained by working closely with fellow students and professors from a wide variety of academic backgrounds is one of the major reasons Stevens graduates are so highly-recruited for jobs in engineering, science, business, technology and other in-demand fields, and that the Stevens return on investment for students is ranked ninth among the nation’s colleges. In fact, enhancing interdisciplinary education and research in targeted sectors of the greatest societal need – including sustainable energy, healthcare and medicine, defense and security, finance and STEM education – is one of the most significant goals of the university’s ten-year strategic plan.

The Solar Decathlon project takes to heart the power of collaborative education – see an info graphic on the academic backgrounds of the Ecohabit team – and the students fully understand and appreciate its impact.

Daniel Munt, a chemical engineering major who helped design the liquid desiccant system to dehumidify the house, said one of the most important skills he has gained while working on Ecohabit is how to effectively interact with other teams who don’t know much about his area of study.

“My team learned how to communicate our goals and process design in such a way that most everyone understood our project,” said Munt. “Collaboration is necessary throughout life, whether in the corporate world or in academia, and the skills I learned through Solar Decathlon are invaluable for my future career.”

“I have learned how to work with people who think differently than I do – engineers for example,”  added Paige Cataruozolo, one of the team’s fundraisers who earned her Business & Technology degree in 2013.

Other students reiterated the value of the interdisciplinary nature of the Solar Decathlon experience.

“I feel I certainly gained a lot in communications,” said William Hazen, a mechanical engineering major who helped design sustainable power generation methods and plumbing and water distribution systems. “Typically at Stevens you’re communicating with your immediate teammates in a project, but this project is so much bigger than that. We’re made up of several sub groups with their own pieces of the project that all intertwine, so I haven’t been just communicating with my immediate teammates on the mechanical team but also the electrical, civil and architecture teams too.”

“I’ve become better at working with a team of people outside of my major,” added Alexis Moore, a 2013 computer science graduate who helped design Ecohabit’s central control system. “I’ve worked with other computer science majors on several projects and we speak the same language. Working with engineers, artists, and business and music majors is a whole different experience because our expertise doesn’t always match up and it was a challenge to get everyone on the same page in the beginning. I think it will definitely help me because I’ll have to communicate with people from different businesses who may have no technical background, and the Solar Decathlon has definitely prepared me for that.”

Kyle Buzby, who recently graduated with his civil engineering degree, said the opportunity to learn about subjects not typically covered in the curriculum is an enormous asset in the workforce.

“The Solar Decathlon competition has given me many valuable real-world skills,” he said. “I have learned extensively about Building Information Modeling, a design practice that is quickly gaining ground; timber construction design, something that Stevens undergraduates don’t typically come across in the curriculum; and the experience of a start to finish construction project. We have had to design and redesign many times to accommodate changes, much like we would in a real-world project.”

With preserving the earth’s resources through sustainable technologies and systems as one of the world’s most pressing challenges, the Solar Decathlon project is also one of the university’s best examples of another key aspect of its mission: to drive purposeful innovation that makes a lasting difference in society and on humanity in today’s technology-centric environment. Applied science, project-based learning, and cooperative education opportunities are all key components of Stevens’ rigorous academic curriculum, designed to help students see science and research come to life and be applied to solve real-world problems like energy conservation.

Being part of a meaningful scientific endeavor is an aspect of the Solar Decathlon experience that Ecohabit team values beyond all others.

“My team and I were excited to be involved in a project that would actually make a difference as opposed to a theoretical project that would never come into fruition,” said Cataruozolo.

“Designing the house in the first place has already been a rewarding experience, but being able to see that design come to fruition will be even better,” said Buzby.

“We’re all very motivated and passionate about the project,” said Hazen. “Part of what keeps me going is the sheer gravity of the project. I mean this house will be on display to thousands of people here in Hoboken and out in California during the XPO.”

Read more about the innovative systems and technologies embedded within Ecohabit here – including its solar shingles, phase-change materials, rainwater harvesting system with green wall and green roof, condensate misting system, desiccant system, recirculating heat pump – and most of all the ingenious central control system, which takes data from sensors located throughout the home to preserve energy and teach the home’s occupants to live more sustainably.